Monday, September 21, 2009

Sept. 21, Maewo Island, Vanuatu

Left, Buying gas
Below, A garden

We have been delaying a trip to port since the end of August, when we had about a week of fresh provisions -a cabbage, three onions, half a head of garlic - on board. Three weeks later we are still eating well. Between bartering with the locals, the fishing rod, and the cans and dried goods we bought in New Zealand and Fiji, we are surviving quite nicely.

It's easy to get bananas, papayas, grapefruit, and mangoes (which have just come into season) from the canoes that paddle up to the boat or the villagers you meet ashore. We are eating bananas (which come in hands of 20-40 bananas) raw and in large quantities, also fried, sauced, pancaked and smoothied. We devour enormous papaya daily for breakfast. In the absence of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers our salad is papaya with sesame oil, sesame seeds, and a little of the old cabbage for crunch. Often the fruit is given for free, as if it would be rude to charge for something that took so little effort.

Vegetables are harder to come by. In big towns (very few and far between), you sometimes see a roadside stand with Costco sized bundles of fresh greens wrapped in banana leaves. Because they won't split the bundles you develop creative uses for bok choy (think of celery substitute) and island cabbage (slimy spinach like leaves). Elsewhere, you need to develop relationships and you have to order in advance because the villagers' gardens are a long and steep trip from their homes by the sea, and they only bring home what they need to feed their families that day.
The old standbys - onions, potatoes, carrots, celery - are nowhere to be found in the outer islands. What's available is not familiar . There's the steak bean - a cross between a cucumber and zucchini with a very mild flavor when cooked. The chouchoute - a pale pear shaped summer squash. We pass on taro and manioc. Small, fragile, dirt-crusted eggs, green onions, little shriveled peppers, and yams are sometimes available, too.

Sometimes we pay money for produce, but more commonly it's a barter transaction. We have traded:
Sugar, rice and flour -where the supply boat hadn't come for six months.
Cow ropes - enough to keep a cow under one coconut tree, but not enough to get wrapped around the next tree.
Pens and pencils for school
Used bedsheets, clothes, kitchenware, tools
We have disposed of much that is not essential or that can be purchased when we get back to town. The islanders have so little and no way to get it, while we have so much.

At our last stop, a regional capital (a secondary school, a 20 bed hospital, a bank, a post office, an airstrip, a dirt road with a dozen trucks and motorcycles), there were four "general stores". One had a mini-fridge with cold drinks. With determination, we were able to buy six cans of Coca-Cola, packaged cookies, three liters of long life milk, canned tuna, toilet paper, rice, a dozen mass produced eggs and a few onions. We also bought gasoline direct from a 55 gallon drum. We could not find butter (we are down to our last two tablespoons), bread, or beer for sale even though the supply boat came while we were there.

Ah, beer. We have been saving our last bottle for about 10 days now - maybe for a very special celebration. Each Pacific nation has its own brewery(ies). In Vanuatu, it's called Tusker and it is pretty good. But due to high licensing fees and lack of demand in a non-cash economy where you can grow kava in your garden, beer is virtually unavailable outside of the cities. In Port Vila, a case was $45.00 (US). On Tanna, the only outer island where we found it, hidden like contraband, it was $43.00 (US) for 10 bottles. (They had gone to so much effort to bring it out that we couldn't say no, put it back).

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